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Posts published in “Courthouse Project”

A courthouse moment: ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’

Courtroom 4D ran a bit like a zoo.

The electric candy-pop of someone’s phone accented the hum of whispers, laughs, and shuffling that was so regular it almost became white noise. There was an anxious itch in the air, each person in a hurry to leave the wood benches as soon as they possibly could. Meanwhile, Judge Doretta Walker bantered with courtroom latecomers, and no one seemed to mind one another.

A middle-aged man, wearing an oversized tweed coat over a grey pair of basketball shorts, stood before the judge ready to present himself in court.

“Go outside and tuck in your shirt, Mr. Williams,” Judge Walker sighed. “I should not see red underwear.”

Her voice was sharp, with the frustration of a parent and the sass of someone who had seen it all before.

On to the next case. “Shantal Parham,” the judge called out.

Parham, a 31-year-old with straight, black hair and a neat pink cardigan, walked up to the witness box to testify at Durham County District Court. She claimed the defendant, Jessica Smith, assaulted and threatened her.

Parham had filed for a restraining order and lodged a complaint with the magistrate months before the trial. Today, she wanted to find a resolution.

Parham spoke to the court firmly and with resolve. She recounted the day of the incident, April 4, which began with a visit to her apartment’s leasing office. After noticing that her rent was higher than usual, she sat down with the leasing agent, Jacqueline Washington, to sort out the bill.

This conversation caught the attention of Smith, the assistant property manager.

Tensions quickly escalated as Parham and Smith disputed the rent prices. Parham told the court that Smith blew up, shouted profanities at Parham, and began to get aggressive. Parham quickly called the police, who then arrived and filed an incident report.

Parham described walking to her mailbox with her children later that day, when Smith ran up to her.

“I ought to whoop your ass!” Smith said. Parham was taken aback.

Smith also suggested that as the property manager, she had access to all the apartments in the complex. “She said she’d watch my apartment, have someone stand in my apartment to watch me,” Parham recounted. “Mrs. Smith spat in my face.”

A collective gasp rose from the back of the courtroom. “Oh my god, that’s crazy!” The once apathetic crowd listened attentively to Parham’s story.

Smith, Parham claimed from the witness box, attacked her in front of her kids. That touched a nerve. She wanted the court to set things right.

“The state calls Jacqueline Washington.” The prosecutor turned his attention to the next witness.

Washington, the leasing agent, was an older woman with graying hair and a cool-toned jacket. She gave her version of the story, backing up Parham’s allegations. Her voice was crisp and dignified, full of the conviction that her truth meant something here.

“The treatment she received was unfair,” Washington said of Parham. “Mrs. Smith was not following the proper procedure.”

“I didn’t like the way the residents were treated,” Washington said. She had since quit her job at Falls Pointe Apartments. This incident with Smith played a large role in that decision.

“Why are you testifying today?” the defense attorney asked Washington.

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Washington’s words rang in the courthouse, which now stood silent.

The state found Smith guilty on two counts of misdemeanor assault. She would have to attend an anger management class and complete community service.

During the recess, Parham and Washington walked into the hallway together. They greeted each other with a warm hug.

A courthouse moment: ‘This is my freedom on the line’

On any given Wednesday in District Court, Judge Amanda Maris settles into her high-backed chair and begins to read names.

“Todd Burgess,” she calls out on this particular Wednesday, September 4. And then “Dinelle Allen.” And then others. When Judge Maris finishes her list, 12 people have shuffled to the front of the courtroom, facing her in a slipshod line. Most are young, black, and male.

One by one, Judge Maris calls out a name and begins reciting her script.

“You’ve been charged with…” she addresses each one, filling in the blank with “larceny” or “misdemeanor assault” or something similar.

“This is a serious offense,” the judge continues. “What would you like to do about a lawyer?”

“Court-appointed lawyer,” the first defendant mutters. “Court-appointed,” says the next. Eleven times, I hear “Court-appointed, your Honor.”

But when the last of the 12 stands alone in front of Judge Maris, she surprises everyone in the courtroom.

“I’ll represent myself, thank you,” the young woman says.

She is Davionna Mack, a slender 21-year-old with a pair of red streaks in her dark hair and chunky gold earrings hanging down to her neck.

Mack is charged with injury to real property, a first-degree misdemeanor. If she’s found guilty, she could spend up to four months in jail. 

But representing herself is risky. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Judge Maris asks after hearing Mack’s decision, raising her eyebrows at the young woman. “That could be a problem if the victim comes to court.”

Mack knows that, and she isn’t contesting her guilt. “This girl I know came over to my car in the middle of the night and busted out my windows,” she tells me after her appearance. “So I went to her house and busted hers.”

But Mack also knows how the criminal justice system works. If she accepts a court-appointed lawyer and is found guilty, she’ll have to pay back all the money spent on her defense. That’s on top of the $173 in “General Court of Justice” fees she already owes to the court, just by appearing in front of Judge Maris.

So Mack will represent herself. If all goes well, she says, the woman whose windows she broke won’t show up to court. Then, her case will likely be dismissed. But if the woman does show up? 

“I’d still rather represent and speak for myself than to have an attorney speak for me,” Mack says.

Back in the courtroom, Judge Maris questions Mack one more time. “You’re sure this is what you want to do?”

“I want to represent myself,” Mack repeats. Judge Maris shrugs and waves the young woman out of court, to await the date she’ll take to the well and represent herself.

“I’m nervous,” Mack admits. “I want to speak for myself. But, you know, this is my freedom on the line.”

In Courtroom 7D: Tears, dramatic videos and questions about a homicide investigation

Correction: This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly said that Bishop said in his 911 call that he found his father on the floor.

This story was reported and written by Niharika Vattikonda and Erin Williams

Alexander Bishop wept as the video played on the big screen in Courtroom 7D. It showed police arriving at his Durham home and working feverishly to save the life of William Bishop, his father.

The dramatic video, recorded by body cameras worn by Durham police officers, was the focus of a hearing Wednesday morning. It showed William Bishop unconscious on the floor as police officers urgently gave him CPR.

As the video played in court, Alexander Bishop removed his glasses and buried his face in his hands, sobbing.

Allyn Sharp — an attorney for Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father — questioned officers about whether they had followed proper procedures. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. held the hearing to consider Sharp’s motions that contend Bishop was the victim of shoddy police work.

One of the motions asked the court to sanction prosecutors for failing to provide Bishop’s attorneys with all the search warrants and evidence related to the case. Another asked that investigators return Bishop’s and his mother’s electronic devices that were seized during a search.

The other two motions sought to dismiss evidence found as a result of search warrants and statements Bishop made when he was first questioned. 

Alexander Bishop at a hearing on Sept. 11, 2019 | Photo by Cameron Beach, The 9th Street Journal

Those statements were the focus of much of the testimony Wednesday. Sharp questioned whether the statements Bishop made at the scene were lawfully obtained. But at the end of the day, Hudson denied her motion to suppress the evidence from that questioning. The hearing will continue Thursday on the other motions.

Wednesday’s testimony from police provided new details about the investigation and the early suspicions that officers had when they arrived at the Bishop home on April 18, 2018. 

When Officer Austin Farley asked Bishop about his relationship with his father, Bishop described him as emotionally abusive. “He went on to state that he wasn’t too concerned if his father didn’t come back,” Farley testified. “He also stated that he would be afraid of what his father did if he did survive.” 

Officer Samuel Kimball overheard Bishop’s remarks to first responders, and he testified that he was struck by the way Bishop talked about his father. 

“I noticed that he was consistently referring to his father in the past tense,” Kimball said. 

At that point, William Bishop still had a pulse and would not be pronounced dead until three days later in a hospital. 

“Usually grieving relatives or someone in this situation is still referring to their family member in the present tense,” said Kimball.

In her motion, Sharp argued that police officers unlawfully interrogated the teenager in the house without advising him of his Miranda rights. Officer Matthew Garvin testified that they were simply securing the scene. 

Sharp responded that for the purpose of Miranda rights, the only standard that applies is whether a reasonable person — in this case, a reasonable 16-year-old — would think that they were being held in custody. If that was the case for Bishop, then questioning him without an attorney or a parent present violated due process.

As a part of her cross-examination, Sharp played another clip from a body-cam video from one of the officers. “Keep an eye on the son. Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere,” Kimball says on the recording.

But the officers also testified that they were not ready to read him his Miranda rights.

“Did you at any point advise Alexander of his rights?” Sharp asked Officer Matthew Garvin, another police officer who responded to the call.

“I did not,” Garvin said. Two other officers on the stand also testified that Bishop was not read his Miranda rights.

However, Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, argued that the “free to leave standard” — interpreted as whether the defendant thinks they’re in custody — does not apply under North Carolina law, which demands a “totality of the circumstances” analysis. 

She said Bishop was allowed freedom of movement, the officers themselves did not make explicit statements that he was in custody, and no restraint or intimidation was used to keep the defendant in the house. 

In his 911 call, Alexander Bishop said repeatedly that he thought his father was dead and suggested twice that the family’s dog may have strangled him by twisting a leash around his father’s neck. Police began to focus on Bishop as a suspect, and a grand jury indicted him in February. 

In July, Bishop’s attorneys filed motions to throw out most of the evidence, including statements made by the defendant. The motions also claimed that the lead homicide investigator omitted key facts to obtain search warrants.

At the hearing, officers testified about their growing suspicions while they were at the Bishop home.

After Kimball turned off his body cam, he met with other officers to discuss what they had found. He sent one of them to find Bishop, “just to monitor his movements out of caution,” Kimball said.

Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, asked Kimball what he thought at that point.

“I said that either it was a suicide or the kid did it.”

Introducing The 9th Street Journal Courthouse Project

This fall, The 9th Street Journal is going to court.

We’ve launched a special project to cover the Durham courthouse. We’ll be reporting on cases big and small – some that you’ve heard about and many that you haven’t. 

Our goal is to explore justice in America and the efforts to make it fairer. Durham has a charismatic new district attorney, Satana Deberry, who is one of the leaders in a nationwide movement to reform the criminal justice system. Our reporters will be tracking her efforts and assessing whether she is delivering on her campaign promises.

Our student journalists also will be spending a lot of time in courtrooms, reporting on trials and hearings and plea bargains. We’ll give you a front-row seat to Durham justice.

The courthouse project is staffed by some of Duke’s best journalists. Julianna Rennie, who has interned for NBC News, PolitiFact, and the Charlotte Observer, is the student editor. The reporters are Erin Williams, Ben Leonard, Swathi Ramprasad, Kristi Sturgill, and Niharika Vattikonda. 

I started the 9th Street Journal a year ago to provide students in our growing journalism program with new opportunities to cover local news. The courthouse project is an excellent next step that will give them a chance to delve deep into some of the most important issues facing not just Durham, but the entire country.

-Bill Adair, Editor

(Above, the Courthouse Project team, from left: Niharika Vattikonda, Erin Williams, Cameron Beach, Julianna Rennie, Bill Adair, Kristi Sturgill, Swathi Ramprasad and Ben Leonard. Photo by Cameron Beach.)

Update: Security guard arrested in hotel shooting

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about Smoot being charged.

Durham police arrested a security guard in connection with a shooting at the HomeTowne Studios hotel on Highway 55 in South Durham on Aug. 23.

Reginald Smoot, 24, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, according to Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael. He served three days in the county jail before posting a $100,000 bond.

Michael said Smoot was employed as an unarmed security guard at the extended-stay hotel but was not on duty when the shooting happened.

According to a search warrant, witnesses told investigators the security guard shot Vincent Smith, 45, on the third floor of the hotel. Smith was found with a single gunshot wound in his left chest.  No information on his condition was available.

Before and during the shooting, Smith used his iPhone to record a fight with the guard, the warrant said. He began recording after the security guard pulled a gun on him, according to Smith.

Managers at the hotel declined to comment on the shooting. 

The HomeTowne Studios hotel, located in the 5000 block of Highway 55, has been the site of two other shootings this year. On August 9, a man was shot in the arm at the hotel. And in January, 28-year-old Wallace Hayes was found shot to death inside his room.

A courthouse moment: ‘He hasn’t gotten enough time for what he did’

After he pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday, Travon Evans will spend at least 12 years in prison for killing his grandmother, Carolyn Hemingway, and stabbing his 4-year-old brother. He’ll get credit for the more than five years he’s already spent in jail since he was arrested.

But that sentence didn’t satisfy Hemingway’s brother Julius Robinson, who stood in the courtroom and addressed Evans.

“I am a Christian, but it doesn’t make it right for what Travon has done,” Robinson said. “He hasn’t gotten enough time for what he did.” 

Then, he asked why Evans did it. 

Evans whispered in his attorney Dawn Baxton’s ear. He didn’t want to answer. 

Baxton spoke on his behalf. “He does want the court to know and his uncle to know that he is sorry for what happened to his grandmother,” she said. 

Before the Tuesday hearing, the 22-year-old sat on a cold wooden bench with his head down, looking at the floor through oversized aviator glasses with his hands cuffed. His orange Durham jumpsuit didn’t hide that he had gotten much heftier since he committed the crimes when he was 17. 

Scarred by a violent household growing up, Evans had post-traumatic stress disorder. He was immature for his age, prosecutors said. That reduced his culpability, according to prosecutor Kendra Montgomery-Blinn.

With credit for time served, that meant he could be in jail for between six and a half and about 10 years in prison. That didn’t sit well with Robinson, who noted how Hemingway had cared for Evans. 

“She took him in at six years old and raised him,” he said of his sister. “She showed nothing but love for him.”

Montgomery-Blinn provided a detailed account of the crime. She said Evans had cut the lights. Police found his grandmother dead and bloody in bed. Beside her in bed were an unharmed baby soaked in Hemingway’s blood and a large kitchen knife. 

In the ambulance, his brother said what happened. 

“Tra had tried to make it dark and scary,” he said. “Tra killed my meemaw with that old ugly knife.” 

Deberry says her reforms are starting to show results

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry says many people mistakenly believe all crimes are the same, that if “somebody pees in your yard, they’ll come back and kill you the next day.”

The reality, though, is that “somebody who pees in your yard usually has housing issues, substance abuse issues, all these other things that are harder to deal with if you have a criminal record.”

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters and editors from The 9th Street Journal on Sunday, the new DA said her goal is to prioritize prosecutions of violent crime but show more restraint about prosecuting people for lesser crimes. She has implemented a policy that no longer seeks cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Her goal is to avoid penalizing people who cannot afford to pay. 

Satana Deberry at a lunch with editors and reporters from The 9th Street Journal. | Photo by Cameron Beach

Deberry says her reforms are beginning to show results. She says she has slashed average jail stays from 19 days four years ago to about five days in her first six months in office. She also has expanded programs to bring together victims and defendants to help them move forward. 

A former defense attorney and housing advocate, Deberry is part of a wave of progressive prosecutors hoping to address mass incarceration and racial disparities in the halls of justice. Deberry says it’s important to consider the consequences of giving people a criminal record. 

“A criminal record is a huge barrier for people,” she said. “We want to think about when we create criminal records for people why we do and then focus our resources on the most violent crimes that are happening in Durham.”

Her first six months have brought a lot of turnover: about half of her office has been replaced since she beat incumbent Roger Echols. She said she interviewed everyone in the office and gave them all the chance to talk to her. Some chose to leave. Others chose to stay, didn’t like her work and later left. 

After graduating from Duke Law School in 1994, Deberry became a criminal defense attorney. She hated prosecutors. Now, she’s one of them. 

“If a prosecutor told me the sky is blue, I would have to walk outside because I would think they lied,” Deberry said. 

Given her background and approach to systemic discrimination, she was skeptical when people pushed her to run for district attorney. She decided to run after doing research and concluding that it was possible to put more emphasis on prosecuting violent crime and helping victims. 

She says she’s reorganized the office to create more specialization among the prosecutors. Her office now has six teams, including a homicide and violent crime unit, so prosecutors are more fluent in the law and “intelligence” around their topic. Other teams include a drug and property crime unit, a traffic team and a special victims unit. 

One of the challenges Deberry’s reorganized office has faced was grappling with a homicide backlog of nearly 100 cases. In her first half-year in office, she closed 22 cases, 15 by getting guilty verdicts, according to a report from her office.  

But she said there was heartache from other cases that her office had to dismiss because of a lack of evidence. That was particularly hard on family members of people killed and it can undermine confidence in the office. 

Deberry said she also wants to continue to expand its restorative justice efforts that unite victims and defendants in hopes of healing. 

“Every defendant is a member of our community. Whether they go to prison or not, at some point they return to our community,” Deberry said. “So how do we repair this violation so people are able to move on with their lives even after they’ve been held accountable?”